Stories of our Entrants

A team of three soapboxes heads for our Soapbox Derby from Lancashire.

1. Our Soapbox Derby – A Lancashire Invasion

They are entering from far and wide.   Entries for the Rotary Club of Billericay’s second Spectacular Soapbox Derby on May 1, 2017 have now exceeded our target of 60 and they are coming from Billericay and boundaries beyond, to race down “Thunder Road” - Sun Corner to the finish Rotary archway on London Road - on Bank Holiday Monday.

Nearest might be the team from the RotaKids at Quilters’ Junior School with boy-racer Headteacher Mike Wade at the wheel... furthest certainly is a three team soapbox entry from Lancashire.  By road and van carriage they will arrive in Billericay to be on the grid start bang on time.

First team up, code name: RC2570 Design, begs the question. Is it a new 500-seater airship being developed secretly somewhere in Britain?  New prototype for a high-speed train? Another Dam Busters’ “bouncing bomb”?

Answer. No. Just the fun name of Bumbling Runshaw.... one of the most exciting entries to this year’s Soapbox Derby and certainly the most travelled since it will be coming all the way from Leyland in Lancashire. But it is being built on the site where, when run by the MOD, Barnes Wallis’s famous Dam Busters bomb was manufactured during World War 11..

Why Bumbling Runshaw?   As team leader and Runshaw University teacher, John Calderbank explains: “We have a bumble bee theme. Guess the music we will be using?”
(Just guessing, John. Possibly, circa comedian Arthur Askey and his walk-on song?...Busy, busy bee - who remembers that?)

What is it and why enter?  

Built by students of an engineering college in Lancashire, it's a gravity cart.  What does that mean?  A soapbox driven only by the force of gravity!  John adds:  “The Runshaw Higher Education Engineering courses has one sixth worth of design and manufacture at second year of the course, where students design and plan the manufacture of the product. This is the second year we are making a gravity cart.  What we have to do in entering is to meet the requirements of the assessments of Design Entries.”

Design prototype

The gravity cart they will enter is just one of thirty the students have to design and manufacture at Runshaw as part of their assessment work to:

  • Design and manufacture a prototype compliant vehicle for a gravity race car event. E.g.:  Billericay in Essex, May Day 2017
  • Present a sponsorship pitch for the project.
  • Present a Cost Report to satisfy all requirements related to the production of 30 Soapbox-type vehicles over six weeks.
  • Complete a business presentation for each group to take charge of manufacturing facility to produce 30 Soapboxes in 3 above.
  • Put together an individual final report to the project to satisfy all learning outcomes.

Sounds professional perhaps compared to many of the home-made, hand-built soapboxes being entered but, as John insists: “To enter the Billericay event we appreciate that we have to comply with all your rules and conditions with regard to structure and  prototype – we engage with that set-down principle.” He adds: “We are delighted to come to Billericay since the May Day Bank Holiday fits our time-table. It is also great that such a splendid charity event also helps us educationally to expand our work.”

After RC now RRR

This is just one of three soapboxes from the Lancashire lads. Also from Runshaw College will come Ram Rod Racing (RRR) and Team Westwoods.  Their innovator, Nigel Thomson explains: “I team teach with John and the students are in their second year HND Mechanical Engineering, full-time and part-time.”  Ram Rod Racing’s name was adopted when, in an earlier race, the students entered a rocket car, similar in appearance to a ram rod, but Nigel is quick to add: “The Soapbox Derby vehicle will not look the same.”

Two reasons why Alex Cushing has been chosen to drive RRR: “I am the smallest and lightest team member, and the only one without a driving licence, so have nothing to lose.”

Team Westwoods gets its name from an infamous car park (apparently) within a Wigan industrial estate where people meet to show off various vehicles.  Driver Harrison Edge also is the smallest and lightest and chalks up success in at least one go-karting championship.

Combined Effort

Nigel sums up: “This will be a combined effort from the students, John and myself but also the efforts of the Engineering Department at Runshaw College in terms of funding, material and build facilities.”

Footnote: The underground MOD site is now covered in grass to hide all old buildings but Runshaw stays above ground.

2. Mowing down Thunder Road

Is It A Lawnmower?  No, It’s A Soapbox! 
Last year – bicycles.   This year – lawnmowers.
Yes, that’s right..... LAWNMOWERS !

They won’t be cutting the grass at Queen Elizabeth Field – and probably won’t look much like lawnmowers as they hurtle down the Soapbox Derby track along London Road on May 1.  That, believe it or not, is the chosen design of the pupils of Shenfield High School.

As Claire Helim, STEM Coordinator/ Science Primary Liaison at the school explains: “Last year we deconstructed bicycles. We used the braking system and wheels and built a wooden chassis. This year we are using ride-on lawnmowers” Simples!

Asked why they were entering again, Claire said: “The students had an excellent time creating their designs and then constructing them. They loved to be able to race their soapboxes down a slightly hair-raising track in a record time.”

This year the school has entered two teams and each team has selected a driver. Ten students are involved. School project or just a fun day?

Key skills

“It is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematical) project, “ adds Claire. “Students who have an interest in one or all of these subjects choose to take part in the project as an extracurricular activity.

“They learn a variety of key skills and team work. How to create a design and, using that design, they can construct and engineer their soapbox, bringing a design to life.” 

It’s not just the students who thrive on it. “It gives the school and the teaching staff great satisfaction and enjoyment to see the students inspired and engaged in an activity that is STEM based.”

Joseph Smith, Year 13, adds: “We are looking forward to entering again and trying to make it down the whole track in one piece.  Last year I drove the Pope Box.”

Year 11 student Shakira Barr adds: “We had a fabulous day last year when we dressed up in Batman costumes . It was fun designing the soapbox and running down the track. We came third in the student race and hope to do even better this year.”

3. Quilters Junior School

Quiltonians Race again!
No 3rd. place this year!

When asked the simple question:  “In it to win it?” Head Teacher Mike Wade didn’t hesitate.  “Of course!”

And the grin on his face said it all. Call it confidence, love of competition or determination, Mike intends to finish first when he races down London Road on May 1 in our second Soapbox Derby.

“I can’t wait to drive our soapbox again,“ he says.  In the lobby sits last year’s 3rd-placed RotaKids Quiltonians soapbox – multi-coloured and “highly-powered”.

“This year it will be the same soapbox but modified.  P.G.Wilkins who did  a wonderful job building it for us last year, are taking it back and making some changes. “

The stunner: “The roof’s coming off, “ said Mike.  “It has to after last year when it broke off over a jump on the second drive.  OK, on the second run, we missed out a jump for a quick time – enough to end third overall.  I won’t settle for third this time.”

(Changed rules ensure that soapboxes which by-pass the jumps will be penalised by more time than they gain – 8 seconds for one jump and 15 seconds for both.

Silly question: “Does the run frighten you ? “  Reply as expected: “Not at all.  It’s all about the adrenalin..”

It’s a Team Effort

How did they make such a success of last year’s entry?  “We are a team – which is why the Soapbox Derby excites us – it is a task which unites so many of us in a joint project” says Mike.

The Quiltonians soapbox may be painted like Joseph’s technicolour coat – thanks to the efforts of the school RotaKids who each painted a section - but the colours that shine through are purple and yellow – the school colours.

Mike makes no apologies:  “ I see everything here in purple and yellow.  I am proud of that. I think the staff and pupils are proud too.“


“I love teaching in junior school because I believe you can find something in which every kid can excel.  In addition to academic progress, they are far more flexible in wanting to involve themselves with everything going on in the school.  They are very conscious of all we are trying to achieve here.”

 For this year’s entry, there will be a new team of RotaKids making sure Mike gets to the starting line – and finishes first. “We are delighted to be involved with Rotary and with your club. We share the same ideals with regard to working in the community, raising money and helping others.”

So to May 1 and the downhill run – the Quiltonians soapbox going for glory.  No expense nor effort spared. 

As Mike says: “Bring it on. I cannot wait.”

4. Killer Heels

Suitable Cases For Treatment
As Killer Heels Go Airborne

They were outrageous last year.  They wowed the spectators, made everyone laugh, embarrassed celebrity opener, The Stig and they are coming back this year. By popular demand!

They were the Killer Heels in 2016...all dragged up in fishnet tights, tutu skirts, multi-coloured wigs and make-up that resembled face painting. But good-hearted wonderful guys.

Team leader, Stephen Sawyer, takes up the tale: “We are all mates. James and I are brothers in law – James is a new recruit this year.

“One of our guys is a carer for a child with special needs and we see how hard he and his partner work to look after the child, Evie.  Which is why taking part and raising money for such people is important to us.”

Even building their soapbox is fun for them. “Nothing but hilarious“, is how Stephen describes it. “We take the mickey out of each other’s contribution to the design and build. One aim – always do our best to scare the driver!”

“We like to think that we are very funny and interesting people and this event gives us a chance to have a lot of fun and make other people laugh.”

Surprise On The Day

Design of their soapbox changes yearly.  

Last year they combined and took on the idea by friend Chris for a Greyhound bus based on Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This year another guy, Scott suggested an airplane. So airplane it is – hence the name - Nearly Virgin Air.

 “Chris came up with the styling theme, I suggested the structural concept and the soapbox name,“ adds Stephen. “The rest I am keeping as a surprise on the day.”

The Soapbox is built in Scott’s garage and the team stress, in a true soapbox tradition.  They make all the parts themselves apart from the wheels and the brakes, using materials in their garages. “None of this adapting-a-racing-car chassis nonsense,” claims Stephen.  

“Chris is an artist and does the paintwork. I do the engineering. Scott’s a carpenter so he does the woodwork.  James makes tea and grinds metal!”

New Driver

Asked - “Which of you daft b.....s drives it ?” Stephen admits he has been voted out after driving  Killer Heels to Wacky Racers victory last year . “That Soapbox was built like a brick you-know-what because I was driving.  Given my new-found flippant approach to safety, roughly summed up as ‘It’ll be all right’ or ‘It might make it to the bottom’, the lads decided we needed a new driver. So, I talked James into joining the team.

James is a building site manager with a currently pregnant wife. “We have told James it is just as well his wife is expecting because after “the pending accident” he might not be having any more!”

Surprisingly, none of the Soapbox-mad crew have to take time out of a mental hospital to take part. Chris is, in Stephen’s words, a “felt tip fairy”, that is, an artist, Scott a carpenter and Stephen himself builds prototype cars.

They are currently building “Nearly Virgin Air” in Benfleet.  Their outrageous humour hides a great camaraderie and a resolution to have fun again for a great cause this year.  As Stephen sums up: “The event is a fantastic and fun spectacle for everyone involved and watching. I made a huge jump last year and the look on people’s faces was awesome.”

5. Rotary club of Billericay Mayflower

Soapbox Ahoy! Enter The Mayflower

Quote: “A process of complex product development has been ongoing to a strict delivery plan, performance handling and shock load testing has been completed and we are now in the process of ‘body’ construction.”  OK Nick – forget the car jargon.  That’s the new Daimler Dart rebuilt – what about your Soapbox for the Soapbox Derby?  Nick is Nick Lang , an aspiring Rotarian, a friend of the Rotary Club of Billericay Mayflower’s past president Ifor Roberts and the engineering skills behind the Mayflower Club’s first time entry.

Ifor takes up the story. “We were inspired to enter following a lunchtime meeting attended by myself, then club president, when a Soapbox Derby was mentioned by a Billericay club member. I enquired further and came away thinking: Crazy idea.”  “Then, another thought. Hey, this is Rotary where, given the will, anything is possible.”

Ifor admits he was unclear what constituted a Soapbox until he helped marshal at our club’s inaugural event last year.  “Wow.! I came away enthused - could I pull a team together for 2017. After all, Rotary is all about pulling together different talents for community and fund-raising projects, and what talents we have at our disposal.”

Trial Jumps

It was about then that Nick Lang had the same thoughts of entering.  Inspired by Nick’s skills in the engineering arena, Ifor and Nick began to put some ideas together.  Videos and You Tube videos were poured over to decide the most effective design and parts were brought together through eBay.

Nick honed his considerable skills, supported by Ifor and fellow Mayflower Rotarian, John Parry, applying his experience rebuilding a Daimler Dart (hence the quote above) to prepare the kart base.  Now the team was not only determined but up and running.

Enter Jill, Ifor’s wife. Donning a yellow jacket, she stopped cars as trial runs were held down Foxleigh and Ridgeway. Boards were laid to practise jumps, different sets of wheels tried out to maximise clearance without sacrificing speed and brakes and tracking adjusted.
Want to see the video? Go to:

Galleon Replica

So now to reveal theme and design – what else but The Mayflower.  “It has to be a galleon with mast and sails,“ says Ifor. “The boys, supported by master printer Rtn Stewart Ellis are working on a light-weight design replica of the Mayflower.”  Ifor had planned to drive it but admits: “Following an injury while skiing I may have to pass the role to one of the other guys.  Watch this space!”  He says that we will have to wait
and see the result. “The plan is to have an eye-catching speed machine worthy of any Rotary club.  More importantly, we hope that it will draw the public’s attention to the Rotary spirit which our friends from the Rotary club of Billericay have already displayed in spades. This fantastic event is destined to grow and grow.”

6. Quick Release Automotive

Hacksaw Dan – A Man Without Fear

Note the name Hacksaw.... he’s the fall guy who has volunteered to drive the Quick Release Automotive soapbox down Thunder Road on May 1, 2017 as 60 soapboxes crash down the track for our second Soapbox Derby.

Real name: Dan Baker. As team manager James Dansey reports: “The guy is utterly without fear, nuance, tact, grace, elegance, sophistication, style, humour or refinement – just the perfect candidate to try to coerce our machine down the hill. “Hacksaw got his name by breaking the teeth off a hacksaw blade on his first attempt at cutting steel. Since when we have been able to cut every remaining piece of the Soapbox frame using only one other hacksaw blade which still has all its teeth intact!

“We are a group of friends and colleagues who work for a product data management company - hence the name, Quick Release Automotive – that must make us a guaranteed fast start.  We all live in and around the area and this is our second attempt attending your spectacular event” He adds: “We love racing first and foremost. Had a great time last year and could not pass up another opportunity to endanger the life of a dear friend.”

Team Design

Design: This year, as James admits: “A bit of a team/committee effort – all collaborating. We wanted to learn some new skills so we’re going for a tubular space-frame for the MK11. Key design point for us this year is ground clearance. Our last one was designed to look like a Can-Am racer – far too low for the jumps. This time – a higher ride height and a driver with a more padded backside.”

Who builds it?  “Committee basically, “says James. “Our captain, Neil Haslam is very much the chief engineer. He has built and restored old cars and bikes for many years.The rest of us learn as we go and our special thanks to Linda Haslem for keeping us topped up with tea and coffee and gracious for letting us use the Haslem Industrial Research and Development Facility for the construction.”

Look out for flying soapbox parts

James adds: “Broadly we are desk-jockeys who work on the engineering side, helping engineers do engineering at the Ford site at Dunton. We have all learned engineering through a process of osmosis as opposed to expensive degrees. But we do have degrees in PhD and MSc in Engineering which should set us in good stead.“ As one team member explained: “We do have a town councillor on the team but he chose not to drive in case he hit a pothole.”  We hear you, councillor! James sends this message to all competitors and spectators.  “Do come to the event and have your photo taken in the Soapbox or just to say “Hi”.

It’s a fantastic event and probably the best gravity-powered competition in the predominantly flat county of Essex. “Thanks to the Rotary Club for putting this event together again and good luck to all the other competitors.”

PS:  Our apologies in advance to spectators injured by flying Soapbox parts – or indeed flying driver parts.

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back to page above this...

Last year's winning entry

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back The Soapbox Derby returned to Billericay on May 1, 2017. Following the success of the 2016 event - we did it all again! For a look at the 2017 event - see the webpages under Billericay Soapbox Derby 2017.